America at Large: ‘Marvellous’ Mal Whitfield a true pioneer

Wherever he went, he held training clinics and woke up a continent to athletics

Between winning 800m golds at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, Mal Whitfield was a master sergeant in the US Air Force. He flew 27 combat missions as a tail gunner on a B-29 heavy bomber over Korea. When on the ground, he trained by running the length of whatever airstrip his plane was parked on. Just in case he came under fire, he usually ran with a .45 pistol strapped to his waist. His was no ordinary sporting life.

In his memoir, the actor Bruce Dern tells a story about the time, as a highly-rated college sophomore, he tried out for the US Olympic team. Lining up for the 800m at the national trials, he spotted Whitfield in the next lane over.

“When the race started all I was looking at was his ass,” wrote Dern. “I could never get by him. I pulled even with him. He looked at me, dropped it down one and went phooo, and he was gone. I suddenly realised, well Bruce, that’s that. There are those who can move and those who can really move. You’re not one of them.”

As a seven-year-old in 1932, Whitfield cycled four miles from his home to the Los Angeles Coliseum, parked his bike by a food stand and snuck in to watch Eddie Tolan barely edge out Ralph Metcalfe in the most dramatic ever finish to an Olympic 100m final.

A moment to fire any child's imagination. Fifteen years later, by then a promising 800m runner, he broke bread with Metcalfe and Jesse Owens, his sporting heroes, at a dinner in Chicago.

Obituaries testified

“All I can say, champ,” said Owens to the youngster, “is you’ve got everything it takes.”

All the encouragement he needed. When Whitfield died last week at 91, his obituaries testified to the validity of Dern’s memory and Owens’s assessment. He finished his career with five Olympic medals (three gold) and three individual world records. Yet, befitting somebody who gave away most of his baubles when he retired, his achievements on the track pale next to his enduring impact off it.

Born in Texas, reared in California by an older sister after being orphaned at 11, the passing of “Marvellous Mal” was mourned in many of the 132 countries he visited during nearly four peripatetic decades as a sporting ambassador for the American government. Wherever he went, he held training clinics, ensured locals had equipment to work with, and, along the way, he just happened to wake up a continent.

“There’s so much fine physical talent roasting away there,” he said of the untapped potential of African athletes back in 1955.

Then he set about helping them prove him right. Miruts Yifter and Mamo Wolde were among his Olympic medal-winning proteges. Another, Kip Keino, described him as "the father of organised athletics in Africa". To the Mayor of Nairobi, his evangelism made him "the Billy Graham of the sports world". Even in retirement, he established a foundation to continue to promote athletics in far-flung corners of the globe.

Having grown up in a multicultural, bilingual neighbourhood in Los Angeles, it was at Godman Field, Kentucky, in 1944 that Whitfield learned the racial reality of America back then.

As a member of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the air force, he was not allowed to use the convenience store on the base. Only the white soldiers and the German prisoners-of-war could shop there. “These are the people we’re fighting against!” said Whitfield. “That hit me hard.”

When he became the first African-American to win the Sullivan Award as the country's best amateur athlete a decade later, he still had to use the service elevator to reach the room hosting the ceremony at the New York Athletic Club. All of which perhaps explains why, five years before Tommie Smith and John Carlos stuck their fists in the air for Black Power at the Mexico City Games, Whitfield called for a boycott of the Tokyo Olympics.

"First, it is time for American Negro athletes to join in the civil rights fight – a fight that is far from won, despite certain progress made during the past year," he wrote in an 1963 piece for Ebony magazine. "For the most part, Negro athletes have been conspicuous by their absence from the numerous civil rights battles around the country. Second, it is time for America to live up to its promises of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, or be shown up to the world as a nation where the colour of one's skin takes precedence over the quality of one's mind and character."

In a eulogy, his daughter Fredricka, an anchor with CNN, recalled a long ago day in Somalia when he took the family strolling through the teeming downtown of Mogadishu. It was years later before she realised what he was doing.

‘Diplomatic principles’

“Dad wanted us not JUST to live in these fabulous places with American diplomatic privileges, but to get out there,” she wrote. “See, touch, feel and be among the beautiful people of these extraordinary places. To be aware. Appreciate. Assimilate.”

He did all three everywhere he went throughout his epic life. Many tributes have mentioned the aphorisms and mantras he came out with.

These “Malisms”, as some called them, included advice to: “Dream big, dare to fail and don’t forget from whence you came.”

He said it. He lived it.